Re: "Morality?" - Composite Reply

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Thu, 09 Oct 1997 12:00:39 -0500

Delmar England wrote:
> Mr. Yudkowsky, I thank you for the response and bringing focus upon
> important elements of the discussion . However, I could not help but notice
> that you did not addresss the fire and water illustration.

I can't find any message containing the words "fire" and "water" - except the
one I just quoted. Would you care to repost?

> At 08:38 PM 10/7/97 -0500, you (Eliezer S. Yudkowsky) wrote:
> >The same religions attach the concept
> >of "objective reality" to God (or similar entity), first by stating that God
> >is objectively real, and second by stating that God created reality and has
> >absolute control over it.
> Right, but that's not the end of it. There are many who reject in detail,
> then with a label change or two swallow the whole.

I don't see how this is relevant. My thesis is that you have committed
logical errors of generalization, semantics, and causal analysis, to wit:

"Most (religious) supreme beings rely on an instantiation of 'objective
morality'; therefore the concept of 'objective morality' relies on a supreme being."

That is, you have generalized from the way religions do it to the way everyone
does it; you have confused the concept of objective morality with particular
moralities that claim to be objective, and you have assumed that because A
relies on B then B relies on A.

> >This doesn't mean that the concept of "objective
> >reality" is indefeasibly predicated on the existence of God.
> >
> I didn't say it is. I said it is predicated upon the idea of a superior
> being not necessarily only the "god" of formal religion. The focal question
> is as you have indirectly indicated is whether the concept, morality, has
> any definitive basis in ANYTHING existing independently of human individual.

I agree that this is the focal question. The answer is: "Either it does or
it does not." Since the behavior which results from acting on the possibility
is not destructive, I believe that I am justified in acting on the normalized
objective interim value of all goals. Or in plain English, I do whatever I
feel probably has objective value, as long as this doesn't make me a lunatic.

> The fire\water example illustrates the conclusion that it does not.

I'd love to hear it.

> I hate to get into a dissertation on language, but I feel obliged to
[long dissertation on "objective" and "subjective" deleted]
> (To evaluate objectively is to determine what is AS IS independently of
> one's personal valuations. Since no one is infallible, the everpresent
> question is whether one does or does not succeed in such efforts. )

I don't see how this confusion impinges on the present discussion, since
neither you nor I have committed that particular error. There's "objective"
in the cognitive sense, and "objective" in the ontological sense. I assert
that there exists an ontologically objective morality. Having done so, it is
possible to apply cognitive objectivity to the evaluation of particular moral theories.

Insofar as we are all Extropians, I doubt that *anyone* here would flinch from
having the *ability* to apply objective cognitive reasoning to *anything*.
The question is whether the cognitive concept, "ontologically objective
morality", contributes to cognitively objective morality. I hold that the
cognitive concept of the ontological objectivity of X is a prerequisite for
the cognitively objective evaluation of statements about X. Otherwise,
anybody can simply state eir opinion and refuse to debate it.

> >Likewise, religions state that their morality is objective and that God gets
> >to define objective morality. This does not mean that objective morality
> >requires a God; it means that the religion in question thinks so.
> In formal religion, how many thousands of denomination labels exist implying
> difference in beliefs. If we ignore the facade variations and go to the
> directive radical of each, what do we find?

That doesn't make the slightest difference. Formal religion is not
prerequisite to objective morality. In order to demonstrate otherwise, you
must take my theory of objective morality and demonstrate a causal reliance
upon religion.

> They're all the same! The
> common denominator, regardless of label and claims of difference, is the
> subordination of human individual to an expressed and\or implied superior
> being. This is the actual definition of religion, per se.

You are factually incorrect. Many religions (such as Buddhism) do not rely on
the "subordination" of the believer to anything or anyone.

> By reference to
> this actual definition, does it not logically follow that any belief system
> that expresses or implies a human individual as subordinated property of a
> non human superior being is no less religion than the formal variety?

No. Nothing may logically follow from a tautology except the tautology
itself. I might admit that within your continuum of pure logic the statement
follows, but within this real world of Yudkowsky and Eric Watt Forste the
statement fails. The "actual definition of religion" does not exist except as
a premise for argument. Extensionally, most objects denoted as "religions"
share some properties such as worship, faith, and a theory of ethics which is
claimed to be objective truth. Western religions also share the concept of a
supreme being.

> What of the phrases, "values of society", "public welfare", "national
> interest", "government does", as only four of a horrendously long list of
> concepts that express and\or imply the subordination of individual to a
> superior being? Separation of church and state? Quite a joke. How does
> "state" exist except by thought and action treating "State" as a volitional,
> valuing, acting, supreme god to which each and every individual is subordinated?

I suggest you read up on the Constitutional Convention. A state may exist as
a social compact between the rulers and the ruled - the theory the Founding
Fathers(*) started out with. Or as sovereign power which has its sole source
in the people and is willingly delegated by them into a formal government - a
concept introduced by James Wilson that wound up as the base of the
Constitution. There was a great deal of debate regarding how much power the
United States should have, whether it should be able to overrule the component
States, and even what the fundamental basis of government was. In our modern
times, government is by thought and action treated like some huge, lumbering
beast. The attitude you describe is not often seen.

(*) = They were all male, so the indictment implied by the phrase is correct.

> However, if we eliminate human individual as the basis for
> "objective morality", what logically remains except a volitional, valuing
> superior being?" To be more precise, what remains is a 'feeling' that
> something superior to individual exists. Do we not need an external
> "something" volitional thing to create an "objective morality?"

In an alternate Universe, you wrote:
> However, if we eliminate individual opinions as the basis for
> "objective reality", what logically remains except the opinions of a
> superior being?" To be more precise, what remains is a 'feeling' that
> something superior to individual exists. Do we not need an external
> "something" opinionated thing to create an "objective reality?"

> >The key fallacy is not the assumed existence of objective morality, but that
> >your particular morality is objective.
> The latter claim does not come about EXCEPT by the initial fallacy,
> objective morality.

So what? Claims of God's existence do not come about EXCEPT by the initial
fallacy, objective reality.

> >Science states that
> >there exists an objective reality, but we do not know what it is. My ethical
> >system makes the same statement with respect to morality.
> >
> The first statement presumes to grasp objective reality as a whole in
> contradiction of a mind's requirement for limitation and difference; so, of
> course, "we do not know what it is", for none can grasp infinity.

You object to this? You don't think an objective reality exists?

> As for
> claiming to know that "morality" exists, but not knowing what it is, this
> seems to indicate that the alleged "objective morality" is not derived from
> an explainable differentiated aspects of an objective reality, but rather a
> feeling whose origin and cause in not necessarily derived from any fact at all.

My "objective morality" is not derived, period. I hypothesize it. I never
claimed to have proven it. I simply observe that the known operating
principles of the Universe seem to allow for such things to happen, although
generally not in the way we expect.

I should likewise note that nobody has ever really proven that an "objective
reality" exists. Descartes would seem to have proven that some form of
reality exists, but through the usage of entirely subjective reasoning.
Insofar as this is the only evidence for the existence of reality, a
determined solipsist could argue that reality is most likely subjective.

And yet, science still works.

> >May I paraphrase?
> >
> >"Any 'rational' goal is simply a rational means to some other, not necessarily
> >justified goal. Therefore, there are no 'inherently rational' goals. All
> >goals are the result of other goals, and value cannot be derived except from
> >value. The objective value of any goal, therefore, is zero."
> >
> I don't mind paraphrasing IF it stays with the program. I'm afraid your's
> doesn't. The first thing you throw in is the term, rational, qualifying the
> concept, goal. This is neither expressed nor implied in my assertions.

I threw in the term, 'rational', in quotes. This denotes that the concept of
a 'rational' goal is being attacked. Which you did.

> "Natural paradox" is a euphemism for contradiction denied. The dilemma in
> focus is of your own creating.

Okay, so why *does* anything exist at all? I'd really like to know.

> By volitional nature, an individual seeks goals, period. This talk about
> rational and irrational is just subjective value judgment stuff thrown in
> with the belief and pretense that the call is made from objective criteria.

I can't answer this fully without getting more technical than I wish to.
Suffice it to say that we humans have a cognitive system for processing goals
and efforts, and that the value of an effort derives from the value of the
goal, and that efforts can be imported as goals when a sub-effort is needed.
Humans also have certain primitive goals whose value is arbitrarily set by
evolution. The goal-processing system is intertwined with the causal model of
reality, so we assign truth and falsity to value statements about goals.
Since we assign truth and falsity, I ask whether such statements can be
objectively true or false.

The answer is yes; idealized AI versions of our cognitive processes (such as
"SHRDLU", "AM" and "EURISKO", and any program written in Prolog) obey
mathematical and Platonic laws while remaining faithful to our intuitions, and
thus a given cognitive evaluation of the value of a goal is "true" or "false"
depending on whether our mathematics are correct. My question about the
existence of "objective morality" can be phrased as: "Does there exist a
mathematically correct derivation of value for some goal, in a system where no
goals have initial value, and with no hypotheticals in the justification network?"

It may seem like a great leap from our questions about truth and falsity to
the assumption of objective truth or falsity. No less a leap is made when our
enormously complex systems for processing the "truth" or "falsity" of an
opinion are compared to objective reality.

> >All
> >goals are the result of other goals, and value cannot be derived except from
> >value. The objective value of any goal, therefore, is zero."
> >
> Aside from the contradiction, objective value, I see a lot of goals here,
> but no means. Combine this omission with the fallacy, objective value, and
> its little wonder you find the problem unresolvable. Fact does not serve to
> validate fiction. Once again, definition, comes to the rescue.

I don't understand what you're talking about.

> First question, what is a goal? If an actual definition conforms to
> objective reality, it logically follows that an actual definition is also
> 100% consistent in time and application. So what fits to define the term
> goal? How about: A goal is a desire to exchange one set of circumstances for
> a different set of circumstances. Will that get it?

What's a desire? Look, I'm always fiddling with things like the limbic system
(handles some emotions), or with AIs that have coded objects called "goals".
When I talk about a "goal", I'm talking about either events in the human brain
or events in some computer, preferably the latter.

> Every day and all day, you and every conscious functioning individual
> continually pursue and achieve goals. This is not always of a consciouss
> nature, but it is no less pursuit of and achieving goals. It is only when
> focus is required that one is inclined to name a goal. What set of
> circustances you name as a goal is arbitrary. The means to achieve it are
> not. Suppose you desire to quench your thirst. Possible means is you getting
> a drink of water by your own direct efforts, or having someone bring it to
> you. While there is no objective right or wrong regarding your choice to
> quench your thirst, there are objective requirements to achieve this end.
> They are called means.

Yes, that's how the human brain handles it, rather roughly speaking. But an
AI handles it differently. All efforts and purposes are instantiations of the
computational object called a "goal". Goals have subgoals, and the subgoals
have subgoals. It's a goal hierarchy. That's what I mean when I say that
"value" is a derived quantity. Intuitively, all value has to come from
somewhere. But your statement that it has to be a single goal, whose value is
validated by nonhuman superiority, is analogous to the statement that, since
reality must intuitively come from somewhere, there exists a "creation"
hierarchy, the apex of which is validated by moral superiority. Both
statements contain a logical fallacy, to wit, refusing to answer the question.
This does not obviate the existence of objective reality, although it should.
By analogy, it does not obviate the existence of objective morality.

> In literally every claim of "objective value" I have encountered apart from
> the formal religion variety which openly claims "God" as "objective value"
> cause, the claimant manages to bring in a personal value and pretend that it
> is objective discovery. Some, like Rand, go to great lengths to "prove" this
> discovery. The "ought from is" fantasy. Others just toss it in without so
> much as a by your leave.

You are incorrect. Where have I done so? I have claimed that "objective
value" exists, although not that my values are objective.

Since the human mind is not capable of deducing or designing objective values,
it should come as no great surprise that all claimed instantiations of
"objective value" are false, at least in the sense of the claimed rational
justification being false.

Most claims of "objective reality" were false prior to the invention of science.

--       Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.